Using Sewage To Map Disease

Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

Human waste may actually be valuable. Today’s New York Times surveys several new approaches to tracking bacterial disease, including rapid genome sequencing and “disease weather maps.” One of the most intriguing models for better understanding of health comes from the sewers. Eric Schadt, of Mount Sinai’s genomic center and the company Pacific Biosciences, tells the Times about a pilot study that analyzed sewage:

“If you want to cast as broad a net as possible, sewage is pretty great,” Dr. Schadt said. “Everybody contributes to it every day.”

To his surprise, he saw not only disease-causing microbes but also microbes that live in specific foods, like chicken or peppers or tomatoes.

“I said, ‘Wow, this is like public health epidemiology,’ ” he said. “We could start assessing the dietary composition of a region and correlate it with health.”

Schadt also talked up sewage-based epidemiology at this year’s FutureMed conference, proposing that someday genetic sequencing connected to the waste treatment system could allow public health officials to track dangerous pathogens. Unfortunately, I’ve had difficulty finding the study he refers to. Have you seen it? Leave a message in the comments, or e-mail me.

Read more on the New York Times.